How do you Engage with God and with those around you?
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” – Matthew 22:37
ENGAGE with God through worship, the Word, and keeping Christ Central in our lives as we live out God’s mission here in Newport and beyond.
Born for Relationships
At our very core, we are born for relationships. This universal truth is embedded deep within our souls. Whether it’s our relationship with family, friends, or our Creator, these connections form the essence of our existence. Newport Baptist Church recognizes this fundamental need and strives to be a place where individuals can cultivate such relationships.
Engaging with God through Worship
Worship is the cornerstone of spirituality. It’s the avenue through which we express our love, gratitude, and devotion to the Almighty. Newport Baptist Church understands the significance of worship. We provide a space where people can come together to uplift their hearts and voices in praise. From soul-stirring hymns to contemporary songs, the church offers diverse forms of worship. It resonates with most, making everyone feel welcome and valued.
Engaging with God through the Word
The Bible is a timeless guide. It illuminates our path, offers solace in times of trouble, and provides wisdom for life’s journey. Newport Baptist Church places a strong emphasis on engaging with God’s Word. Through insightful sermons, Bible studies, and more, everybody has the opportunity to deepen their understanding of Scripture, enabling them to apply its teachings to their daily lives.
Keeping Christ Central
In a world often filled with distractions, keeping Christ central in our lives is not always easy. Yet, this is precisely what Newport Baptist Church encourages. Endeavouring to keep Christ central in our lives ensures that faith is not just a Sunday thing but a guiding principle for our entire journey.
Living Out God’s Mission
Engaging with God through worship and the Word is not an end in itself; it’s a means to a greater purpose. The church is not confined to its four walls; it is an active participant in the community.
In a world marked by divisions and uncertainties, the message of Jesus in Matthew 22:37 serves as a powerful reminder. Love, not only for our fellow human beings but also for God, is the thread that can bind us all together.
Newport Baptist Church offers opportunities to engage with God through worship, and the Word, and by endeavouring to keep Christ central.
In the heart of Newport, a church stands as a reminder that our deepest longing for relationships can find its ultimate fulfilment in our relationship with God.
Today we come to the end of our Hard Questions series, and we are finishing with a doozy: we’re going to spend the next 20 minutes or so talking about hell, which is a topic that is not preached about too often nowadays. I want to assure you that this message definitely isn’t going to be all hellfire and brimstone with lots of finger-pointing and judgement. But rather what I’m hoping for is that it will be a conversation around the history of what we call hell and some ideas about what it might be.
Feel Free To Disagree
Once again, feel free to disagree with what I share with you today, but I do ask that you know why. These hard question messages about creation, the fall, heaven and hell have been opportunities for us to nail down our own current theological understandings on these subjects – to explore and ask ourselves the question of why we believe what we believe, which could very likely be different to the person sitting next to you.
There are a lot of movies and TV shows that have been made about hell or the devil which can colour our understanding of it. Satan is either a cheeky lad or a sneaky fiend or a terrifying character and hell is a great place to go if you want to have fun for eternity (better than playing harps and being goodie-goodies) or it is a place of horrific mental and physical torment and everything in between.
Hell. It’s been used as a swear word frowned upon in church circles, even if you hit your thumb with a hammer.
It’s been used to describe horrific events on earth such as the conditions soldiers faced in WWI.
Firefighters have described fighting deadly Australian bushfires as staring into the very jaws of hell.
For centuries it has been used as a weapon of fear: if you do something wrong, you’ll go to hell. It has helped keep children, both Catholic and protestant, in line – if you sin, you’ll go to hell, and if it’s a really bad sin a policeman will come and put you in jail for good measure.
Some teaching on hell has caused heartache for people whose loved ones have died at their own hand when they have been told that that person is going to hell.
Sadly, it has been weaponised more recently by – dare I say it – US right-wing, fundamentalist Christians. When they protest against people or groups or political decisions that they don’t agree with or don’t like. When I did a Google image search for signs that Christians use about hell, some were so terrible, so judgemental and horrific that I felt sick to the stomach.
Here At Newport Baptist Church
So, as the community of Christ here at NBC, let’s start our exploration of hell without fear-mongering or judgement.
In The Old Testament
We’ll start in the Old Testament with this now familiar ancient picture of the world as a roofed dome. The heavens above the dome were where God dwelt and the earth inside the dome was where humans dwelt. The sun, moon and stars were stuck on the roof of the dome. A bit like the glow-in-the-dark stars that kids of the 80’s put on their ceilings.
Under the earth was a physical place called Sheol somewhere within the pillars of the earth.
As we begin our journey into hell – no, that’s not what I mean – as we begin exploring hell starting with the Old Testament it’s important to note that the word hell isn’t actually mentioned in the Old Testament. The place of the dead was called Sheol. So, what and where exactly was Sheol?
The Jewish Encyclopaedia gives us some really helpful insights.
Sheol represented the place where everyone who died was believed to go. It was a physical place that was deep underneath the earth; it marked the point which was the greatest possible distance from heaven. When a person died, they descended into it or were made to go down into it. Sometimes though, the living were hurled into Sheol before they naturally died. In Numbers 23:32 we read that the earth opened its mouth and swallowed a group of men who were plotting against Moses and planning a takeover, along with their families.
Sheol in Job 10 is written about as a land of darkness and deep shadow; and elsewhere in Job, Psalms and Isaiah it is described as a place with gates. We find in Proverbs 27 chambers or divided compartments in there. In Isaiah and Ezekiel, we read that there are the furthest corners in this underworld.
So, Sheol was a place where the dead met without distinction of rank or condition—the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave. The dead merely existed and silence reigned supreme. In this realm of silence, God was not praised. In short, Sheol was a horrible, dreary, dark, disorderly land where return from it was not expected.
And yet in 1 Samuel 28, we read that a troubled King Saul consulted a medium to speak with the deceased prophet Samuel. A rather grumpy Samuel appeared and asked the king: why have you disturbed me by bringing me up.
Samuel, the great prophet and a man who during his lifetime obeyed God and lived for God, wasn’t in some kind of heavenly paradise after dying but rather under the earth, in Sheol, seemingly resting. He spoke his words of condemnation against Saul. Then returned to his resting place beneath the earth. Knowing that the next day Saul and his sons would be joining him.
So how did we move from a place of shadowy rest and existence after death in the Old Testament to a place of fire and eternal torment in the New Testament?
Alexander the Great
One significant historical event happened during this intertestamental time – the 400 years or so between the Old and the New Testaments. In 332BC Alexander the Great, the famous Greek warrior, along with his army, overthrew and conquered the Persians who had occupied the region of the Middle East which included Judah. Gradually over three centuries, Jewish thought was influenced by Greek ideology, philosophy and mythology.
You may be surprised to know that the word hell is not mentioned in the original Greek writings of the New Testament. Rather it is a translation of three Greek words: Gehenna, Hades and Tartaros that happened in the 1611 version of the King James Bible.
Understanding that, we can see how the 17th-century translators used the Old English word hel or helle which meant netherworld, the abode of the dead, infernal regions, and a place of torment for the wicked after death when talking about Gehenna, Hades or Tartaru. The Old English word hel or helle came from the Proto-Germanic haljō which meant the underworld.
Three Greek Words
Let’s have a brief look at these three Greek words.
The first we’ll look at is Gehenna. According to Jewish tradition, this word originates from ge-hinnom which means the valley of the son of Hinnom which was located outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. This was the site where some Israelite people sacrificed their children by burning them to the local gods – Molech and Baal. These unspeakable actions were abhorrent to God and to righteous Jews.
Tradition says that this place outside of Jerusalem continued to have a sordid and awful history. It had been a site of mass graves for soldiers after wars were fought in the region. And long before Jesus came onto the scene, it had become Jerusalem’s garbage dump. All types of rubbish was dumped and burned there, including bodies of people who died in sin. Because of the rubbish and the bodies, it kept continually burning.
The second word that has been translated to hell is Hades.The term Hades, not surprisingly because of its centuries of influence, comes from Greek culture. Initially, it was used as a name for the god who had dominion over the realm of the dead. Later for the place itself, it was a place where all dead people resided. Early depictions of the afterlife in ancient Greece show or talk about Hades as a place where restless spirits of the dead lingered in an underground twilight existence. Homer’s Odyssey famously describes Hades as a place across a river at the end of the world. Requiring a guide and a long journey for the restless soul. In the Iliad, it’s a murky, damp place.
Our final word for hell is Tartarus which is found only once in the New Testament in Peter’s second letter. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the deep abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked and as the prison for the Titans. According to Plato’s Gorgias, Tartarus was the place where souls were judged after death and where the wicked received divine punishment.
In 2 Peter it is the place where angels who had sinned were cast and kept in chains.
So, were Jesus and the apostles talking about mythology when they spoke about Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus?
No. They were speaking in a language that their listeners and readers would understand. Using imagery that would show the importance of their message. Is this imagery of eternal lakes of fire, of worms and snakes and gnashing of teeth literal? I don’t know.
Jesus was completing the story of eternal life. As we’ve discussed, hell (or the equivalent Greek words) is a thoroughly New Testament doctrine. Because it only makes complete sense once God’s gift of mercy and grace through the work of Jesus’ death and resurrection has been offered and is rejected.
Not God’s Plan
It’s not God’s plan for any person to be separated from him. From his love and from his good plans for eternal life. But it is God’s plan to give humanity the free will to decide what to do with his love and these good plans.
What we do now, in this lifetime has eternal consequences. And that is not just saying the sinner’s prayer. As we see in today’s Bible reading, what matters to God is how we treat those who are needy. Who are hungry. Who are in prison. Did you see that the sheep were as shocked about their deeds as the goats were? But Lord, when did we ever feed you, or visit you in prison or clothe you? Both sheep and goats asked the same question, and the answer was: when you did or didn’t do these things to the least of these. There’s a whole sermon there – but that’s for another day.
What we do in this lifetime has eternal consequences. Remember last week we were talking about not being whisked off to heaven when we die? But God sometime in the future recreate heaven and earth into a place of creation’s original beauty and perfection. We are given the opportunity to share in that for eternity.
Made in The Image of God
But when humans who have been made in the image of God say outright to God that we don’t want to acknowledge you as creator, as Lord in our lives. We don’t want to worship you and live the way you want us to by putting others before ourselves. By caring for the poor and loving the others. When we say we don’t want to be transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus then we are basically saying to God that we don’t want to be made in his image anymore. We want to be made in our own image and we want to live as our own gods.
What we do in this lifetime has eternal consequences. Because when humans reject God in this way then what is God expected to do when we die? God respects the choices humans make. In my mind the decision to reject God and his love, mercy and grace is hell.
Is Hell Burning Lakes of Fire
Is hell burning lakes of fire and deep dark caverns of terror? I don’t know. What I do know is that what we do in this lifetime has eternal consequences. For me, hell is being cut off from God who is love and grace and community. Eternity without goodness, without community, without love – completely Godless – seems terrifying and tragic.
The Prodigal Son
We see a picture of the depth of God’s love for all of humanity in the familiar parable of the prodigal son. The boy demanded his share of his father’s estate and went off and lived his own life and wasted every cent. He came back to ask forgiveness which the father granted in ways the son could only ever imagine. This father should have shunned his son. Yet he opened his arms to him when the son decided to come back home. God’s love invites us to come back to him. To be welcomed by him no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done.
The older brother who had stayed and worked hard on the farm was so jealous of this reckless brother and angry that he was accepted back into the family with such deep and unabandoned grace by their father. He refused to share in and celebrate the love, joy, and happiness of The Father. He would rather have seen his brother burn in hell.
What we do in our lifetime has eternal consequences. Rather than waving placards at people we don’t agree with, let us do as Jesus said: love your enemies. Instead of judging people for their lifestyles, let’s ensure our lifestyle is in line with God’s will. Rather than looking down our noses at those who are doing it tough, let’s help them in practical ways of service.
What we do in our lifetime has eternal consequences – it’s a hell of a choice.
Jesus said: I am the bread of life. All who come to me shall not hunger, and all who believe in me shall not thirst.
With Christians around the world and throughout the centuries, we gather around these symbols of bread and juice. Simple elements that speak of nourishment and transformation.
We give thanks, loving God, that you have refreshed us at your table.
We pray that you will continually strengthen our faith. Increase our love for one another and our service towards all we encounter.
As we have been fed by the seed that became grain, and then became bread, may we go out into the world to plant seeds of hope, love and service. Amen.
As we leave today, let us remember that Jesus the washer of feet and the friend of sinners is our brother and our example. Therefore no lowly service towards another is beneath our dignity and no individual is unworthy of our concern and respect.
We go knowing that we cannot help everyone who is in trouble. But we can show God’s love through our service to some. Therefore, let us keep our eyes and our hearts open. So that we will recognise those in whom Jesus comes to us for mercy.
May the love of Jesus enfold you. The love of God encircle you and the fellowship of the Spirit enrich you. Now and evermore!
Back in the 1800’s John Wesley—the founder of the Methodist Church—wrote some rules to sing by. I think they were written for the many Methodist lay preachers who were travelling the countryside by horse sharing the gospel, but I think they are a lovely reminder for all of us as to how we approach our worship of God through singing together:
See that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
Lustily and with good courage.
Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it, but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy and it is high time to drive it out
from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quickly as we did at first.
Above all sing spiritually
Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than
yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Many of us have favourite hymns or songs that bring back lovely memories or deeply spiritual times with the Lord. If you have a favourite hymn or song, let Julie know and she’ll pass them on to the worship leaders.
Asking the Hard Questions: Heaven, Revelation 21:1-7, 15-22:5
NBC March 5, 2023
An Uber driver reached the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter looked up his name in his Big Book and told him to take a beautifully embroidered silken robe and proceed directly into heaven.
Next in line was a pastor who was feeling pretty excited when he saw what the Uber driver got. St. Peter looked him up in his Big Book, furrowed his brow a bit and said, “OK, we’ll let you in, but take that plain brown robe.”
The preacher was shocked and said to St Peter, “But I am a man of God – a minister of religion. You gave that Uber driver a silken robe. Surely, I rate higher than him!”
St. Peter responded matter-of-factly, “Mate, this is Heaven and up here, we are interested in results. When you preached, people slept. When that guy drove, people prayed.”
Heaven: so many ideas
Heaven. There are so many ideas of what it’s like. Mark Twain once quipped that one should choose heaven for the climate, hell for the company. We think of heaven with the Pearly gates, streets of gold, St Peter checking people in, and us sitting on clouds playing harps, every day – for eternity.
My dad used to talk about the great wedding feast that we would enjoy in heaven, and he would say that there would be lamingtons and pavlovas galore to eat at the feast (which just happened to be his favourite foods). So as a kid, I imagined heaven to be full of all my favourite foods – and as an adult, I imagine heaven to be full of all my favourite foods that I can eat without putting weight on!
Your ideas of heaven
I wonder what your ideas of heaven are. Over the next few moments, I invite you to chat with the person next to you or near you and share what you think heaven is like.
Over the millennia, ideas about heaven have gradually changed and today we are going to go on a bit of a journey trying to understand these changes and hopefully land somewhere that will give us a theological framework to build our own thoughts about heaven.
I’m not here to give you the answers, but rather to instigate some critical thinking for us all to do about heaven and what we believe it could be all about. I don’t know about you, but often the only time I think deeply about heaven is when it’s in relation to someone having died…rather than in relation to the life and hope and promise that we have been given through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So, let’s all get our thinking caps on and be prepared to agree or perhaps even respectfully disagree with me and each other, which is a good thing if it means that we have thought and researched and prayed things through. We are all learners on this journey with God and I want to learn as much as anyone else.
Now in the beginning
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the very first verse of the Bible, we are introduced to the Hebrew word for heaven or heavens ‘shamayim’. This word has a double meaning: it’s either cosmological – a part of the physical universe or the place where God lives or dwells.
For the ancients, the heavens and the earth were separate – remember our picture of the dome with the heavens above the dome and the earth within the dome.
Heaven and earth were twin halves of God’s good creation. God’s space and humans’ space. God gave the earth to humans as our special place to live. God made the heavens to be his dwelling place. In Genesis 11 we see the arrogance of humans when they started to build a massive tower up to the heavens – this solid top of the dome – to make a name for themselves. It’s a similar sin to what happened in the Garden of Eden – they wanted to be like God. And just as Adam and Eve were scattered from the garden, so too God scattered humans throughout the world and scattered their languages.
Keeping this dome picture of heaven and earth in mind helps us when we are reading other verses in the Old Testament like Genesis 7:11 on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened,
or Isaiah 40:22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. There are so many more verses I could fill the whole sermon up with – which I won’t do.
As we understand this idea of the ancient writers
As we understand this idea of the ancient writers that God’s throne and dwelling place was in the heavens above, when we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament, we can have a fuller understanding of the excitement, disbelief and shock created when John proclaimed that the Word – God – became flesh and dwelt among us.
God, the mighty One, Creator of heaven and earth, came down from the heavens to dwell or live with humans as a human on earth. The translation here is God ‘tabernacled’ or ‘pitched his tent’ amongst us. Remember, the dome interpretation of the universe was still very much a part of New Testament people’s thinking; God dwelling in the heavens above the earth was their reality.
Then in Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, we get a new idea emerging around the idea of heaven through Jesus’ conversation with a thief on the cross beside him. Jesus speaks words of comfort to this dying man: today you will be with me in Paradise. Now often when we read this, we immediately think that Jesus is speaking about heaven. This word paradise in Greek is paradeisos which comes from an ancient Persian word meaning garden or park. Persian walled gardens were historically known for their beautiful layout, their diversity of plant life, their walled enclosures, and is a place where the royal family could safely walk. They were, in effect, a paradise on earth.
The Garden of Eden
The garden of Eden in Genesis 2 has echoes of a Persian Royal Garden. Or paradise with its abundant water supplies in the rivers that ran through it. The fruit and plants of every kind for food that were “pleasing to the eye”. God spent time in that garden. Walking and talking with Adam and Eve like a King might dowith his family in a royal garden.
But as we have heard over the past couple of weeks through Rick preaching on the fall, Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden due to their disobedience. And so, from that devastating moment, the Bible lays out the tragic story of human separation from the divine and the answer to how humans can find their way back to God.
When Jesus was on earth – God dwelling amongst humans, God with skin on – he spoke a lot about the kingdom of Heaven. I wonder what the disciples made of those conversations. We read that a lot of the time they were completely confused. And it’s no wonder when we read some of the ways Jesus spoke about it. He said that the kingdom of heaven was like a mustard seed, like a treasure found in a field, like a generous landowner to name a few. He told his listeners that they must have faith like a child to enter it. That it was harder for a rich man to enter than a camel through the eye of a needle. And he said on many occasions that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
The place where God dwelt
For people whose concept of heaven was the place where God dwelt, that was a lot to take in. So, let’s explore what the early believers’ understanding of heaven and life after death was. I’m borrowing heavily from an article by NT Wright called: The New Testament doesn’t say what most people think it does about heaven for some of this.
For us to understand what the first followers of Jesus believed about heaven and what happened after they died, we need to read the New Testament in its own context— the world of Jewish promises, prophecies and hopes, of Roman imperialism and brutality and of Greek thought.
Remember the ancient’s understanding of the twin halves of God’s creation – heaven and earth. Jewish people believed that God who created the heavens and the earth would finally, one day, bring heaven and earth together in a wonderful act of new creation. Completing his original creative purpose by healing the entire cosmos of its ancient ills – of the sin that scarred this earth and humans back in the garden of Eden.Their belief in all of this became a solid reality in the form of Jesus. In Jesus, God came to live with them and brought about the possibility of the Hebrew Bible’s ancient promises and prophecies of a new creation. A new heaven and a new earth that we read about in Isaiah 65.
New creation was released
With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this new creation was released. In Jesus they had the perfect coming together of “heaven” and “earth.” Finally, the ancient Jewish hope had come to pass at last.
Because of Jesus’ teaching and through his death and resurrection, they now believed that God would raise his people from the dead. To both share in and share with the stewardship over God’s rescued and renewed creation. Just as Adam and Eve were given that role back at the beginning of creation.
So, the point was not for them to “go to heaven,” but for the life of heaven to come to earth. Remember the words Jesus taught his followers to pray: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
From as early as the third century, some Christian teachers started to blend this belief with types of Platonic beliefs. Which created the idea of “leaving earth and going to heaven.” This became mainstream Christian belief by the Middle Ages.
So, if we don’t “go up to heaven” when we die
So, if we don’t “go up to heaven” when we die, what hope was there for Jesus’ followers to hold onto back in the first century and for us now? Now, stick with me here. This is different thinking and may be difficult for some of us to consider. All of us have lost loved ones and we want to know that they are safe and happy in heaven. My mum is dying and I want to be assured that when she dies she will be with the Lord – which is her deepest desire.
Last year Mum believed she died for a few moments. She told me that she was suddenly in a beautiful place full of soft purples and pinks and she felt a deep, deep peace that she had never known in her life. NT Wright describes this place in the article I mentioned earlier as Paradise – the place that Jesus promised the thief. Do I believe that we and our loved ones will be with the Lord when we die? Oh yes! Do I know how that will happen? No. But I know it will be good.
The firm understanding that we have hope in and can hope for is the resurrection of the dead. Where we are raised to life and given a new and immortal physical body in God’s new earth. We don’t know what these bodies will look like. But they will be perfect without pain or blemish.
Today’s text from Revelation
Let’s move to today’s text from Revelation, where we read about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. I encourage us not to immediately jump to these verses as being a literal road map to the new Jerusalem or the end times. But we read them in the context of the early Christians. Who were living under the might and power and brutality of the Roman Empire back in the first century.
This time when Caesar was lord and if anyone else was given the title, they were traitors to the state and killed. Such incredibly brave words were spoken by Paul and Peter and John and other writers and believers throughout this time of the Empire when they claimed that Jesus was Lord. This was an offence against the state and Caesar himself.
Let’s imagine how wonderful these promises must have been to these first-century Christians who were being persecuted for believing that Jesus is Lord. These Christians had been promised that Jesus was coming back soon. Our ancient sisters and brothers in Christ had seen family members used as lamps in the garden of Nero or fed to the wild beasts in the Colosseum.
Letter from John
This letter from John promised them a glimpse into God’s wonderful new world. This letter would have encouraged them in their faith, in spite of the terrible persecution they were encountering. I imagine they would have loved seeing how John subversively spoke against the Roman Empire calling it foul and immoral. I imagine they would have felt relieved seeing the destruction that God promised against it.
This new city to come that John spoke about, this place that God would bring down to earth is described as vibrant, secure and safe. The walls that surrounded it symbolised community and security – important words for people suffering. True community was a place where everyone could feel supported and safe. The gates within these walls would be open all the time for people to come in and be welcomed.
Within this city there was no temple. Because it was the place where God dwelt. Worship could happen at any time and any place within the city. It didn’t matter the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Because in this new city of God. God was there all the time. The Lamb – Jesus our Brother – was on the throne. The people could worship him face to face, giving thanks for his sacrifice on the cross.
Water an important source of life
In the dryness of the surrounding area, water was an important source of life. In this city when John speaks of the river of the water of life, he was saying that the power that sustained life is unending and uncontainable. Along the route of this river, vegetation would flourish.
In spite of hardships. In spite of famine or drought. The people could look forward to a place where there was eternal sustenance which meant they could flourish and thrive.
In this new garden is the tree of life. That amazing symbol that God guarantees life. On both sides of the river and it continually bears fruit. No one would miss out because they were on the wrong side. There is an unending provision of food that is good to the eye.
John gives his readers a choice to make. They could choose to live in a place where they forsake God and his gift of grace and suffer its fate. Or they could struggle in their witness now. In order to live forever in the city of God after they had been resurrected from the dead.
Food, security, God’s presence, no evil, no pain, no tears of grief. What an incredible comfort for those first-century Christians who made the choice to continue in their faith, no matter what the struggle. What an incredible comfort for us to hold on to.
So What is heaven?
What is heaven? That’s a hard question for us to consider. And how about the question: Where is heaven? Often, we think that heaven is somewhere up there. But isn’t that using the ancient’s way of dome thinking. If we just jump in a rocket and travel 3000 kilometres into space, we’ll find heaven. That’s not going to happen. Could heaven be in a completely different supernatural sphere –a place that we can only imagine. Paul was so right when he stated that we see through a glass darkly.
When he was on earth, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven being at hand. If heaven is where God resides. If we have God living within us through the Holy Spirit. Does that mean that we could be bringing in the kingdom of heaven just by being a child of God?
We have all been given the invitation to participate in God’s kingdom. God longs for his church to be places that are like the new Jerusalem. Safe and secure, places that have a welcome for everyone and where the judging is left to God. The church is the place where the weak and vulnerable receive special care and protection. The church is the place where we believers lay down our crowns of pride, selfishness, greed and power at the feet of God. Where they worship him together. All nations, all languages, all equal. Are we willing to take up God’s invitation to participate in being a part of the kingdom of heaven on earth?
The Bible finishes as it begins
The Bible finishes as it begins. At the end of time when a new heaven and a new earth are established. Just like the beginning of time when God created the heavens and the earth and walked in the garden with humans. Before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
The book of Revelation doesn’t have souls going up to heaven. But God bringing down the New Jerusalem. The beautiful and perfect new creation where God lives in visible form with humans.
This picture of the new heaven and the new earth is something for us to look forward to. To and to be excited about. But let’s be careful not to sit smugly with the idea that we are getting out of here and the rest of this world can go to hell.
Let’s intentionally work towards making an eternity with our Creator. Something that is attractive and precious by giving the people around us a glimpse of it. What the new heaven and new earth – what the new Eden – could look like. A place of relationship, security, flourishing and of God’s gentle presence.
Go now from this service of worship to the service of God’s people near and far, refreshed by the living water that Jesus offers to you.
Listen for the parched voices of the least of these; search out the dry places and the arid souls, and become for them a spring of living water.
And as you go, may the blessings of the God of life, the Christ of love, and the Spirit of grace be upon you this day and forevermore.
Creation, Genesis 1 & 2, Asking the hard questions
Today in church we are going to do something that doesn’t happen too often: we’re going to read two entire chapters of the Bible. And not just any chapters, but the very first two chapters of the Bible. Usually, we don’t read such big chunks of Scripture, but we need to today to help us explore the theme of creation.
We’ll start with Chapter 1. These words are so familiar to us: many of us would have been taught this creation story from our Sunday School days. Many of us, myself included, would have read these familiar words more like they were from a science or historical textbook rather than ancient poetry.
But today, as we read them, I encourage us to listen to the poetry of the words and allow them to soak into our hearts and minds. Let’s allow ourselves to be opened up to the wonderful mystery of our Creator God who spoke all things into existence and who brought order out of chaos.
Listen to its rhythm, to its beat
As we read it, listen to its rhythm, to its beat. You might even like to close your eyes and visualise its imagery and hear its sounds; let’s enter deeply into this poetic text and allow the Holy Spirit to sweep into us, much as the Spirit swept over the face of the waters in the beginning.
We’ll be reading it as a responsive reading, which is how the ancient Jewish people would have read it. Left side, you are green, right side you are orange, and we’ll all say the yellow words together.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw that the light was good
and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it.
And it was so.
God called the vault “sky.”
And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”
And it was so.
God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.”
And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And it was so.
The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.
And God saw that it was good.
there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.”
And it was so.
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from the darkness.
And God saw that it was good.
there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.
And God saw that it was good.
God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”
And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.”
And it was so.
God made the wild animals according to their kind, the livestock according to their kind and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kind.
And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.
And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”
And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day, he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Asking hard questions
A lot of prayer and consideration goes into putting together a preaching plan. As I was considering where God was leading for our first series of the year, this idea of asking hard questions came to mind again, where we focus on creation, the fall, heaven, and hell.
This series idea has been in my head for a while. Every time it has popped up, I’ve considered it, thought yeah…nahhh – too hard. I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind and listened for another idea from God.
But it has gotten to the stage where I can’t ignore it anymore. So for better or worse, over the next four weeks we are going to be looking at these four topics that have caused debate, upset and arguments within the Christian church for centuries.
As Rick and I have been discussing the different topics, sharing with each other what we’ve been reading and learning, Rick gave me some very wise advice: Jools, we’re walking a fine line here. We want people to continue to embrace their faith and not have it knocked about.
I totally agree with that. As always, I appreciate Rick’s advice. But I also want us all, me included, to have our faith stretched. To be open to asking some questions that we’ve never asked before. Or voice questions that we may have had but kept pushing away. Because the questions felt like we may have been questioning God, our faith or even the inerrancy of Scripture.
So, yes, over the next four weeks, we are going to be walking this fine line together. If you are finding it hard or if you don’t agree with some of the things that are said, please come and chat with me. We’re all in this together to learn together and to wonder together.
Image of the fine line
This image of the fine line reminded me of a video Rick made of me during the 2021 lockdown when the Tokyo Olympics were held.
One of my favourite sports to watch is gymnastics. Looking back I think I was going a little bit stir-crazy through the COVID lockdowns when I decided to try some balance beam, fine-line walking of my own.
Of course, I only used a line in the tiles, not an actual beam.
Creationism versus evolution. Literal six days of creation and young earth versus billions of years of evolutionary change and ancient earth and everything in between.
What are we meant to believe? Especially when there are some well-known Christians such as Ken Ham who heads up Creation magazine. Who says that you can’t possibly be a Christian unless you believe in a literal six-day creation.
What are we meant to believe when there are deeply committed Christian scientists and palaeontologists who believe in a literal six-day creation. When other deeply committed Christian scientists and palaeontologists don’t believe in a literal six-day creation.
Where do we start?
Well, I’d like to suggest that we start with a spirit of humility and love that allows our sisters and brothers in Christ to sit with their own creation beliefs and theology as we sit with ours. Even though they may be different to our own. I know there will be people in this congregation who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. And there will be others who don’t.
Where do we start?
God was the creative force behind it
Let’s start with the firm and foundational knowledge that however the universe and all that it holds came into being, God was the creative force behind it. The intricacies of our world, the beauty that we see around us and the perfection of where the earth is situated in relation to the sun, didn’t happen by chance. But by an intricate, beautiful, creative, perfect God.
As I have been doing the reading around Genesis 1 and 2, I wish I had heard a message like we are having today when I was young. Because it would have helped me so much in my own understanding of creation and God and faith. You see when I was growing up, I couldn’t believe in the existence of dinosaurs. Because if we believed that dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, then we must believe in evolution which was anti-God.
In high school
When I was in high school and studying biology, my science teacher, who knew Dad was a minister and I was a Christian, said to me in front of the whole class that I could ignore everything that was said because he was going to be teaching on evolution. So, that’s what I did. I had to protect my faith, so I switched off through biology.
We have a responsibility as a church to enable each other. Especially our young people as they go through their schooling, to walk hand in hand with faith and science. Sometimes easily, sometimes uncomfortably, and always very carefully. And that is not always going to be easy. Because sometimes I think that science displays more faith than Christianity as it tries to keep God out of the creation equation.
Rather than seeing creation versus science as black and white, right and wrong, science-void faith or God-void science. If we learn to read Genesis 1 and 2 as it was written in and for ancient times, by people who understood their world as a domed building. Who lived in a time when there were other awful and frightening pagan creation stories abounding. Then it might help us significantly in finding a way to walk hand in hand with both.
Genesis 1:1 – In the beginning
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
What a majestic, magnificent, marvellous way to open the story of God. There is a wildness and wonder in the first two chapters of the Bible.
And chapter 1 is a beautiful piece of poetry. Perhaps one of the driving problems of the modern evolution/creation debate is that we have confused the genre of the writing of this chapter. We read these words through our modern Western eyes understanding the text as literal or scientific fact. When the reality is that we can’t really place it in such a neat, clean genre.
I wonder what would happen if we saw that the author’s purpose wasn’t to give us a step-by-step, blow-by-blow account of creation. It wasn’t to outline history or a scientific theory in a modern way that we will understand. But to offer a poetic theological reflection on creation. Full wonder and thanksgiving which focuses on God who brought it all into being. From the wild, dark wasteland of nothingness.
And as we see it through this lens, let’s be sure to understand that even though it is poetry, that doesn’t mean it is fiction. God created the world, in the way that God chose to create the world. And it was good.
Science or Cosmology
Creation poetry doesn’t teach us about science or cosmology as we understand those things today. It was never intended to do that. Because even if that was their intent, the ancients’ ideas of science and history would be well out of date by now. Just imagine what people 3000 years in the future will be thinking about our understanding of science today. I reckon they would see it as very basic and wonder how on earth we could believe or understand such things.
It was only 550 years ago that Nicolaus Copernicus worked out that the earth and planets moved around the sun. It took another 100 years for his theory to be widely accepted.
There is only one God
So, what does the creation story at the very beginning of God’s word teach?
This story teaches its readers that, unlike other pagan religions with their many gods and goddesses, there is only one God. It rejects an Ancient Near Eastern creation myth that tells of one of those many gods, Marduk who created the heavens and the earth out of the carcass of the slain goddess Tiamat.
No, the Hebrew people as well as us can be assured that it is God who speaks and all creation obeys. It is God who speaks, and things come into being. These words in Genesis 1 proclaim full trust in God’s power and authority.
Poetry of Genesis 1
The beautiful poetry of Genesis 1 also helps us today to put deep roots into our faith, understanding and worship of God the Creator of the world as we are bombarded with creation myths, many of which are formed on the foundation of God-void science.
Berkeley professor Huston Smith writes in his book “The Soul of Christianity” that many modern academics suggest that science is the only or the best source of reliable knowledge, and the only type of knowledge worth knowing.
The astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously said that the universe is all there ever has been, is, or ever will be. But in Genesis 1 we see loudly proclaimed that there’s more to our world than just matter and energy. More than purposeless fate. It assures us that we’re not alone. That we’re not abandoned to our own selves. But that ever since “the beginning” the Spirit of God has hovered over all existence like a tender mother.
In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins objects to the idea that the human species deserves any special moral consideration compared with other species. Dawkins writes that “misguided religious zealots might believe that ancient superstition but it has no proper basis in evolutionary biology.”
Humans do have a special place in creation
Genesis 1 tells us that God created humans in his own image. Humans do have a special place in creation. And we have been given a special role in creation. To care for and tend the world that God has given us. And in spite of our shortcomings, in spite of our wilfulness, God looks at us and sees us and the potential within us as very good.
In this creation poetry, we read that every single human being is created in the image of God. This isn’t something that we can earn by being smarter, or richer. Or even more moral or upstanding than the person next to us. It is something that we are created into, and are born with. And no person, for any reason, is not made in God’s image.
As we look around, we can feel confused. How people created in God’s image can act the way they do?
We are given the free will to distort or enhance God’s image by the choices and decisions we make. But we can never lose this precious divine fingerprint on our lives.
Image. Where does this idea come from? Worship has always been an integral part of human practice. The ancients worshipped the sun, moon and stars. They worshipped gods and goddesses of all shapes and sizes. And they would make images of these things, images that were called idols. Believing that somehow that image carried the essence, the very being, of whatever god or goddess it represented.
The images didn’t do what the gods or goddesses were meant to do; they sometimes didn’t even necessarily look like the gods or goddesses they were representations of them. Rather, the gods or goddesses’ work was thought to be accomplished through the idol – through the image.
That’s pretty mind-blowing!
Let’s go back to this beautiful work of God in the Genesis story, where God made humans in his. Or more literally – in our image which can be read as Father, Son and Spirit. We have been created as images of the great Creator, not by the way we look but by the way we live. God’s work is accomplished and is worked out, through us. And as we grow more mature in our faith walk, we grow more and more into the likeness. More and more into the image of God. We mirror more and more God’s incredible attributes of creativity, grace, love, care, and the ability to see the good in things. That’s pretty mind-blowing!
As our minds are blown, we also need to do a bit of a humility check here. Being made in the image of God doesn’t put us at the centre of the universe, as some people may like to think. No! That place is for God alone. Just as he is smack bang in the centre of the creation story.
As we wrap up
As we wrap up today’s message, I want to briefly touch on the differences that can be found in the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 creation stories. Seeing the differences once again is a great reminder to us. These chapters aren’t teaching us about science but teaching us about God.
Where the genre or style of writing in Genesis 1 is poetic and repetitive, it describes the creation of the entire cosmos and climaxes with God resting on the seventh day. Chapter two is more narrative or storytelling in style. And rather than the big picture of creation that we get in chapter one, chapter two zooms in on humanity. Adam and Eve – in the beautiful garden called Eden that God created for them and placed them in.
Rick will be speaking more in chapter two next week as we look at the Fall. But I do want to finish off today by saying that an ancient editor of the scriptures knew the differences between these two accounts found in Genesis 1 and 2. Yet placed them side by side as the opening of the story of God and humanity. And we sit with these differences. Knowing that this editorial work was inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that hovered over the darkness in the second verse of the Bible.
I’ve had a few sleepless nights over this sermon.
I do hope that we have all been able to walk the fine line that the ideas and suggestions have raised.
Over many years I have now landed on these thoughts on creation.
I don’t know how God created this world.
I don’t know how long the creation took.
But what I hold onto most firmly is that God did create the world.
We, humans, have been made in God’s image. We have been given the responsibility to care for this beautiful world – the environment, the animals and of course each other.
As we go out this week, warm in the knowledge that God created this universe and created us in his image, may our eyes be open to seeing God’s presence in all we see, our souls open to sense the Spirit’s presence in all we do, and our hearts open to love as Jesus loved in all we meet. Amen.
Finding a church you can be at home in can be a daunting task. Whether you’re new to the faith or searching for a new spiritual home, the process of selecting a church can be overwhelming. It doesn’t help that people say, “When you find the perfect Church Don’t join it because that’ll ruin it”. Let me share some tips on how to find your Sunday sanctuary and choose your home church.
Newport Baptist Church – see Contact details below
Choosing Your Home Church
Do you prefer a traditional or contemporary service?
Are you looking for a church with a strong emphasis on community outreach? Do you want a church that is welcoming to all people, regardless of background or beliefs?
Once you have a clear idea of what you are looking for in a church, you can begin your search. Next, ask for recommendations from friends, family, or coworkers who attend church. They may be able to suggest a church that aligns with your spiritual needs and preferences.
Additionally, check out online reviews and church websites to get a sense of the church’s mission, values, and services. Finally, visit a few churches in person. Attend a service, meet with a pastor or church leader, and talk to members of the congregation. This will give you a better sense of the church’s culture and whether it is a good fit for you.
Finding Your Heavenly Haven Home Church
When choosing a home church, consider the location and proximity to your home or workplace. You don’t want to have to travel too far to attend services or events. Additionally, think about the church’s schedule and whether it fits with your own. If you have a busy schedule, a church with multiple services or online options might be a better fit.
Another important factor to consider is the church’s involvement in the community. Does the church offer outreach programs or volunteer opportunities? Is it involved in local charities or social justice initiatives? These are important considerations if you are looking for a church that is active in making a positive impact in the world.
Ultimately, the most important factor in choosing a church is finding a community of believers with whom you can connect and grow spiritually. Attend services, participate in small groups or Bible studies, and get involved in the church’s activities. This will help you build relationships with other members and find your perfect Sunday sanctuary.
Picking the Best Place of Worship
Finding the home church takes time and effort, but it is worth it to find a community of believers that supports and strengthens your faith. By evaluating your spiritual needs, seeking recommendations, visiting churches in person, and considering factors such as location and community involvement, you can find the perfect church for you.
For example, I prefer a smaller church where I can get to know people. Getting to know people and having a good relationship with them is a lot. A big church for me would just be overwhelming. But you may be different. So go out there and start your search for spiritual serenity and heavenly haven!
The biblical patriarch Abraham is celebrated for his faith and the blessings bestowed upon him by God. However, the significance of Abraham’s story goes beyond his personal prosperity. He was blessed to be a blessing to many. This timeless lesson resonates with us today. Reflecting on his journey, we discover that we, too, are blessed by God. Not just for our own sake, but to be a blessing to others in our lives.
Blessed to Be a Blessing
Abraham’s story in the Bible is a testament to God’s promise and faithfulness. God chose Abraham and blessed him with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, a promise that seemed impossible given his old age and his wife Sarah’s infertility. But God’s blessing on Abraham is a divine commission for him to be a blessing to others and to share the abundance of God’s grace with the world.
In our own lives, we often receive blessings in various forms – good health, loving relationships, financial stability, and personal achievements. Don’t hoard your blessings, share them with those around you.
Being a Blessing to Others
So, how can we follow in the footsteps of Abraham and be a blessing to our neighbours and friends? Here are some essential ways to consider:
One of the most powerful ways to bless others is through prayer. Take the time to pray for your friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers. Pray for their well-being, their dreams, and their challenges. Your prayers can bring comfort, hope, and healing to those who need it.
To truly bless someone, we must listen with an open heart. Pay attention to the stories and experiences of those you are praying for. Listening allows you to understand their needs better and offer more meaningful support.
The act of inviting people into your home and sharing a meal is a beautiful way to be a blessing. It creates a sense of community, fosters deeper connections, and provides a safe space for people to relax and be themselves.
Serving others selflessly is at the core of being a blessing. Whether it’s volunteering your time, lending a helping hand, or offering your skills, acts of service can make a significant impact on someone’s life.
Sharing Your Story
As we strive to be blessings in the lives of others, we must remember that our own stories are powerful tools for inspiration and transformation. Just as Abraham shared his journey of faith and God’s blessings with those around him, we, too, should be ready to share our unique stories of God’s presence in our lives.
Sharing your story can be a source of encouragement, hope, and faith for others. It can provide insight into how God has worked in your life and can inspire those who hear it. Do it with humility and a genuine desire to build up others, not to boast or seek recognition.
In the spirit of Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing. As we go about our daily lives, let us keep in mind the call to be a blessing to our neighbours and friends. Through prayer, listening, hospitality, and service, we can make a positive impact on the lives of those around us.
And when the time is right, don’t hesitate to share your story of God’s presence and blessings in your life. By doing so, you can be a beacon of hope and an instrument of God’s love. So, ask yourself today, “Who are you going to bless today?”
H – Happiness – Ps 30:11-12 You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!
O – Overcomes – Jeremiah 32:17 “O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you!
P– Promises – Hebrews 10:23 Let us hold unswerving to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
E – Eternity – Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.